Tiffany Crane

Sometimes life interferes with being the perfect law student. What happens after that?

I walked in, confidently shook Mr. Partner's hand and sat down. He politely tossed my resume aside and said, "What advice can I give you about interviewing with a smaller firm? My firm would never consider you."

Loyola University New Orleans has a strong contingent of women lawyers working in Career Services who are particularly attuned to the issues facing female law students as we search for employment opportunities. This was something that I took for granted until my second year of law school when I began to see some of the statistics brought to life in my own quest to find a place in the legal field to call my own.

My law school experience has been marked with significant events that have taken my focus away from studying and required personal strength to handle family crisis. I have made the choice to keep a well-balanced life and maintain solid progress toward my J.D. and therefore, not to make law school and my future career the focus of my life. For that choice, I have limited my future opportunities. I believe that this choice is one that is faced by more female than male students. I believe that it is expected more of females to forego their personal growth opportunities to take care of family. In my family, it is not expected but it still happens. The reality of my situation is that my fiancé is the bread-winner now that I am in school. We cannot afford for him to lose time from work and we cannot afford for me not to maintain at least a part-time job while in school. Therefore, I have to sacrifice school to some extent to keep our lives running. My grades have suffered and ultimately I have chosen fewer opportunities.

The first door shut in my face during a Mock Interview Day held by my school. The process is designed so that hiring attorneys from area law firms interview students for clerkships as if they were hiring from the pool of participants. Each student has three interviews.

My first interview was conducted by a male partner at Biggest Firm in New Orleans & Associates. They hire from the top five percent of the class generally, but not strictly. I knew that I did not qualify under their hiring criteria, but I expected that I might be able to convince the firm to look at me because my background was directly relevant to an area of law in which they practiced.

I walked in, confidently shook Mr. Partner's hand and sat down. He politely tossed my resume aside and said "What advice can I give you about interviewing with a smaller firm? My firm would never consider you." I was dumbfounded. At first, I was almost thankful for his brutal honesty so that I didn't waste my time. But then I remembered that this was a mock interview and this man had thirty minutes to mock interview me even if his firm would never consider me. He was obligated to be there, but instead he tossed me aside within the first two minutes. I had twenty-eight more to go and I stuck with it, much to his obvious chagrin.

Mr. Partner did not treat me this way because I was female, but he and his firm wouldn't consider me because of my grades which are lower than they should be because of my life choices as a female running a household. I know that large firms have bright lines for grades and hiring criteria. But no matter how smart I was or how much I had accomplished in my life, I didn't look like the women that his firm hires, and I had no inside connection to anyone who worked with that firm; therefore I would never be hired by this firm. From this experience I learned I have no desire to be a part of a large firm.

Similarly, every partner I have met in a large firm espouses the same firm culture that law school students, especially women, must be picture-perfect and have perfect grades to be considered for employment, or know someone in the firm. This frustrates me for a number of reasons. First, I am an older student who has gone back to law school after having a career as a biologist. I am seven years older than most of my classmates and have gained much experience in the way that business is conducted. Most of my peers came to law school straight from undergraduate programs. Though bright, they have no life experience. I am frustrated that my achievements prior to entering law school are not a factor considered by most prospective employers.

Second, I take care of my family and they come first when necessary. Therefore, my grades are not as good as I know they could be. I accept the fact that my own choices have led me to have more limited opportunities because I have put family above law school, but I don't like it. I am dismayed by the fact that my choice--to keep my life in perspective and not let law school, and thus my career, become my life--is a disfavored one among employers.

From an employer's point of view, I can understand that they want young associates who are very focused and unencumbered by outside forces. The top students are, in the opinion of many firms, those that most likely fit the bill; i.e., can post the most billable hours. After all, they aren't likely to run off during a family emergency to care for the kids if they know what is good for them. On the other hand, I would think that employers would want well-rounded candidates who know how to manage stress in their lives and know what their breaking point is, so that the employees can be managed to give quality performance over just producing billables.

I know there are firms out there that realize that a good lawyer is a balanced one. I have yet to find one, but I know I will, especially with the help of my Career Services ladies, who constantly promote networking among our female graduates.

6 Comments

KHernan881

  You have a very compelling story and this is a really well written piece.  However, I am torn by the main points of your complaint.  On the one hand you seem to be arguing that there is a fundamental problem with the hiring criteria of law firms and I agree that there might very well be.  Grades cannot be the best indicator of success in the legal profession. 
  On the other hand you seem to be saying that you should be rewarded for NOT being dedicated to your career and school.  You want credit for being older and wiser but you also want a pass on dedicating the requisite amount of time to school. 
  Finally, your post sounds like you are disappointed in your limited career options after law school but it also sounds like you made a conscious decision to abandon those career options by not giving your whole self to law school.
  As women, I don't think it is prudent to argue for a lower standard for women alone.  This is the idea of affirmative action and is one that I think is full of holes and problems.  Perhaps what you should be pressing for is for your school to have a policy against students putting grades on resumes.  Many top law schools do this.  Your career services office may push back because the employers want to see grades.  However, you seem to have a strong argument that the policy should be changed.

jessie

Like it or not, the obsession with heirarchy in the legal community is inescapable.  Law schools look at LSAT scores, undergraduate institution and grades as the primary factors in admissions.  The entire legal market, firms, judges, government agencies, public interest groups, etc.,  hire based on the rank of your law school and the grades you recieved there.  In turn your law school rank is determined by admissions criteria, and the rank of the school of the journal publishing your professors' scholarship.  It's all interconnected and crappy.  But when you took the LSAT and applied to law school you joined the procees even if you didn't buy it. 
One of the hardest things about bucking the system is that you're unlikely to be taken seriously unless you've already played by the rules.  If you didn't perform fantastically at a top school and receive prestiguous offers, your rejection of those brass rings is undermined.  You have to have succeeded by the standards you abhor in order to criticize them.  It sucks, but I think that's the reality.
For women, as a group trying to change the status quo, it often means only the voices of those who have all the traditional measures of success (the Ruth Baders if you will) will be the most effective vehicles of change.  In economic terms, only the candidates in high demand have the leverage to force change at firms and elsewhere.

ptlawmom

Great post.  I think it was good of the partner to shoot straight with you.  I have the issue of having to balance work (FT), school (PT) and children and it's not easy.  I'm not certain who will hire me, but I'd like to believe that my ability to balance it all successfully says something about my work ethic.
I think that if you can get out there and prove yourself at a mid-size or small firm, many of the big shops will consider you as a lateral later on. 
http://ptlawmom.com

Kalokagathia

Although I am not a mother, a wife, or embarking on a second career as a lawyer, I took a lot from this article. To me, this article challenges us to look at the way we view our life choices and the way we judge ourselves and others based upon them. The definition of success for one person is not the same to another. No matter what we portray to the world around us, non of us can have it all. We all make choices, we all have to sacrifice at times, and luck or circumstances can impact the outcome for any of us. I hope I can learn to define success for myself rather than assume the definition that my school, career services, peers, etc. have adopted.

nunyabiz

This is a response to you and also to some of KHernan's points.
I relate to what you have to say, although for somewhat different reasons. I worked before law school and was successful at what I did, and I've realized that it doesn't really count for anything…at least not with law firms. I'd guess with most law firms, it's a 65/25/10 split (grades/school/other factors) in terms of what they consider, with the 10% coming in after you pass the other 90%. I also decided I'd rather have a balanced life than let law school take over, but I didn't do it for familial reasons but for my own sanity. For better or for worse, this is not rewarded when you're looking for legal employment.
However, it's also not rewarded when you work at law firms—they look for candidates who, the way I see it, don't have a life and aren't really going to want one or pay attention to the one they have outside of work. Work comes first, not family. You have to be committed to the long hours and be looking at the traditional road to partnership track…not some modern-day mommy-friendly road to partnership. In other words, not much has changed, and this is why law firms still have way more men working and becoming partners within them. It's easier for men to not have or ignore a life outside of work than it is for women—as well as for them to do the same when they're in law school—and, what's more, I think more men than women want to do that kind of thing simply because I feel that more men care more about the money and the prestige/status and all that than women do.
To get to some of KHernan's points—first of all, I don't necessarily think you made a "choice" to put family before law school and, thus, employment opportunities with law firms. Like you said, family coming first is kind of necessary. It's not fair that law firms still demand that this is an either/or thing, and the balancing act doesn't mean you can't be an amazing lawyer at a "prestigious" law firm. It's just that law firms don't want to hire people who need or want to balance anything. Second, I don't think you're asking for special treatment for women or for yourself. You're probably like me—you probably think that law firms should look at more than grades and what law school you attended for everyone and not just for women or for people who worked before law school.
Third, a lot of people enter law school not knowing enough about the politics of the legal profession to make "a conscious decision to abandon" certain career options. I mean, I was led to believe that a top 10 law school would be enough for me to land jobs with a law firm, regardless of grades. I was also led to believe that some law firms allow you to balance life outside of work with a career at a law firm. Now that I know that both of these things are generally not true, it really is too late for me (because I very well might not have attended law school knowing otherwise, particularly the 2nd point). I think in a strange way that it's very lucky for me that I unwittingly ruined my chances of being hired by law firms because, being the kind of person who values a well-balanced life over money and long hours, I wouldn't have been happy going into most law firms but, because of my debt, still would have done it any way had my grades been good enough.
You can still have hope for a law firm that will look beyond all the elitist requirements and will also provide a balance you can live with, but I really don't believe in law firms anymore and don't—as I see it—waste my time on them. I've worked in public interest over the summers, and these are the jobs where I see it being realistic to go home at 4 or 5pm daily and not be one of only a handful of women working there. I don't see anything wrong with your being disappointed that you even have to make a choice in the first place—i.e. family vs more career options. Law school is too trying, not to mention too expensive, for well over 50% of its graduates to have a good number of doors closed to them—many of them not even realizing it.

sampima

As a wife, mother, full-time contract administrator, and part-time law student, I understand the frustration of not being in the top third of my class.  I'm in a four-year program (that requires me to take four classes a semester if I choose not to attend summer school) and I will graduate in May 2008. 
The experience has been one of the most challenging of my life.  It has also helped me to really determine what is most important to me.  I recognize that the big firms don't want me because my GPA doesn't meet their minimum.  I am okay with that.  As much as it hurts to feel rejected before even applying, it's okay. 
I did not make the sacrifices I've made over the last several years (and continue to make) in order to work at a large firm that will require me to be away from my family just as much as I am now.  It does hurt to know that I'm not going to make $140K+ right out of school and that it is unlikely that I will work for a really high-profile firm.  However, if I can find an interesting job in my practice area, make $80-90K, and manage to have dinner with my husband and kid at least most nights, I will be a happy woman.
An amazingly accomplished female attorney came to speak at SMU recently and she discussed the life lessons she has learned in her career.  She talked about finding her right practice area, how she advanced in her career, how she and her husband balanced the child rearing and home life…she called it "defining your all."  I did not realize that I had been doing just that. 
Each of us has to decide for ourselves what sacrifices to make, what choices are worthwhile, and what goals to pursue.  It should be something that is well thought out and happens over time.  While I wish I was ranked near the top of my class, I know that I didn't work hard enough to be there.  For me, that is okay.  I didn't realize at the time that I was making a choice but that's really what it was.  I don't sneer at those students (male or female) who have made different choices and will have different career paths.  My choices only affect my family.  I don't need to defend those choices and I have no reason to push others to make similar choices.
Think about what is truly important to you as an individual or as part of your family.  What will really make you happy in your career?  Make your choices, reevaluate them periodically, and go fufill your goals independent of what anyone else thinks.  If you are true to yourself and ignore the pressures to fit a particular mold, I think you will find satisfaction.
P.S.   Several of the earlier posts make the point that students don't know what they are getting into in terms of getting jobs after graduation and I have to agree.  The statistics that the schools use about 'number of students employed within 90 days of graduation' and the 'median starting salaries' really don't give us the whole story.   

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